Posts Tagged ‘Nona Fernandez’

Books of the Year 2022 Part 2

December 27, 2022

Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich)

It’s not obvious that the story of a chiropodist from an uninvitingly concrete housing estate in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. The format allows Oskamp to share the stories of her narrator’s many customers, which in turn allows her to present a picture of East German society as it was in the years before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Yet another wonderful find from Peirene books who, despite only publishing three books a year, are frequent contributors to my top ten.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

A much more likely inclusion in the best books of 2022 is the 2020 Prix Goncourt winner The Anomaly. The story of a plane which lands twice – once when due and then an exact copy, passengers included, three months later – never has Oulipo been used to such page-turning effect. Telling the story from the point of view of numerous characters is no mere gimmick but actually adds to the tension, and the many nods to Oulipo writers of the past – and even the inclusion of a book within a book – at no point get in the way of readability. Most impressive of all, given its concept, le Tellier produces an ending that works.

Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft)

2022 saw the return of Columbian writer Evelio Rosero to print in English for the first time since 2015 thanks to new publisher, Mountain Leopard Press. Stranger to the Moon is a small book in everything but ideas, Rosero crafts a world where the Clothed and the Naked live divided, the latter largely confined to a crowded house (the narrator spends much of his time in a wardrobe) while the former are free. In what is a disturbing fable about social division, Rosero does not lose sight of his main character as an individual who does not feel like he belongs with either faction. An unsettling tale that you are not likely to forget quickly.

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The publication of Nona Fernandez fiction in the UK by Daunt books is to be celebrated. The Twilight Zone, which, like Space Invaders, uses popular culture as an entry point to life in Chile under dictatorship, focuses on one particular member of the armed forces who was involved in the systematic torture of those who opposed the regime – we know this because he confesses in the 1980s in a magazine article the narrator remembers. This is another smart novel on the part of Fernandez as the story of the soldier becomes linked to the story of the narrator, providing an anchor for the reader as well as a reminder that brutal regimes have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

Still Born by Guadalope Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood.

The Twilight Zone

August 5, 2022

Like her earlier novel, Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez’s The Twilight Zone (also translated by Natasha Wimmer) borrows its title from popular culture and uses it as a starting point to examine the years of dictatorship her home country, Chile, suffered between 1973 and 1990. Its starting point is not the television series of the early sixties, but an article in a magazine in the mid-eighties in which a member of the armed forces confesses to his part in the torture and murder of opponents of the regime:

“His face was on the cover… and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I TORTURED PEOPLE… The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story.”

The narrator – we assume Fernandez herself (she was born in 1971) – reads the story as a teenager; she even comments on the man’s likeness to her science teacher. It is she who is transported “into some parallel reality:”

“A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats.”

Two further encounters follow: firstly, when she is writing a television show which features a character based on the man; and secondly when she is working on a script for a documentary in which he is interviewed. We begin to understand what she means when she says that, in a dream, she “inherited the man I am imagining,” presumably the same dream about which she asks him in a letter that is entirely made up of questions:

“Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

What is impressive is how Fernandez turns this admittedly dramatic confession and the chance encounters which follow into a novel. She does this using the tools of the novelist, taking the incidents described in the confession and reimagining them, while continuing to tell her own story. For example, she links the morning routine in the household of the first victims she describes to that in her own:

“On the 29 March 1976, at 7.30 am, the same time my son and his father leave the house each day, Jose and Maria Teresa left to take their children to school.”

This domestic scene is transformed when Jose is captured on the bus under the pretence he is being arrested for robbery. His family cannot say what happens next, but “the man who tortured people”, as he is frequently referred to even though his name is known, can, that he was likely “handcuffed, blindfolded, and then shot and killed…”

“…they then cut off his fingers at the first joint to make identification more difficult, and they tied stones to his feet with wire and threw him in the river.”

One of the most affecting stories Fernandez tells is of the Flores brothers – all three are arrested, and all three are eventually released. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, one of the brothers, Carol, has agreed to work for the intelligence service as long as his brothers are left alone: “The Flores were freed from danger in return for Carol’s soul.” In this way, Fernandez demonstrates the choices which ordinary people faced, and, once again, humanises the individuals who, as she shows at one point, are often little more than a photograph of remembrance.  Yet, despite this, Fernandez avoids the novel becoming simply a collection of painful and upsetting stories. Those stories are there, but surrounded by other elements – not only Fernandez’s own life, but the life of the man who tortured people, who exists in a twilight zone of culpability and redemption, both haunted by his past and a ghost himself:

“That’s how I imagine the man who tortured people: as one of the characters in those books I read as a girl. A man beset by ghosts, by the smell of death.”

The Twilight Zone is not the only touchstone for understanding – in this section (The Ghost Zone) Fernandez also calls on A Christmas Carol. These references work because they also relate to Fernandez’s life as a child and adolescent growing up during the dictatorship. Rather than being simply accusatory, the novel feels like an attempt to understand the experience of those who were tortured and killed, of their loved ones, of the man who tortured people, and of Chile itself. Something of the teenage girl reading the magazine remains in the narrative.

The novel ends with a timeline of the dictatorship written out as free verse with the repeated refrain, “Family members of the disappeared light candles at the cathedral.” But a coda reminds us that at the centre of this is the relationship between the novelist and her informer, and it is this relationship which raises it above its worthiness as a witness to suffering to something very special indeed.